WOE TO LIVE ON by Daniel Woodrell Henry Holt. 214 pp. $16.95

WE MEET young Jake Roedel, narrator of Woe to Live On, as his band of Kansas Irregulars discovers an immigrant family watering horses at Missouri's Sni-A-Bar Creek. The Irregulars' phony Yankee uniforms "were a relief to them for they didn't look closely at our mismatched trousers and our hats that had rebel locks trailing below them. This was a common mistake and we took pleasure in prompting it.

"Most of the boys couldn't be excited by a single man, so they led their mounts to the stream, renewed their friendship with whiskey and generally tomfooled about near the water."

Though the immigrants are apolitical, en route to Utah Territory, they are gulled into expressing sympathy for the Union cause, and the father is promptly hanged. His 14-year-old son makes a move to interrupt the proceedings, and Jake "gave no warning but the cocking of my Navy Colt and booked the boy passage with his father. He did not turn, and the ball tore him between the blades. His death was instant."

I can't think of many novels that open as the hero shoots an innocent boy in the back, and it's a measure of author Daniel Woodrell's skill that he almost makes Jake Roedel likeable. Later in the book, on Jake's wedding night, his wife asks if he is a virgin. He replies, "Girl, I've killed fifteen men."

As you see, Woodrell's language is sharp and convincing. The speech rhythms, locutions and slang ring true. Whenever Woodrell trots a historical figure onto stage he does so with becoming modesty. Coleman Younger appears; Quantrill, of course; and Frank -- though not Jesse -- James. They are seen in the present of their own time, as their contemporaries might have seen them, without benefit of hindsight. These Irregulars are, perversely, fascinating: "I can think of no more chilling a sight than that of myself, all astride my big bay horse, with six or eight pistols dangling from my saddle, my rebel locks aloft on the breeze and a whoopish yell on my lips.

"When my awful costumery was multiplied by that of my comrades, we stopped faint hearts just by our mode of dread stylishness."

WE ACCOMPANY these Irregulars on raids, lynchings, ambushes, hairbreadth escapes. We winter with them in a rough dugout. We follow as, blood-crazed, drunken, exhausted, they make their fateful raid on Lawrence, Kansas. In Lawrence, Jake's reservations crystalize: "At a hostelry, a freckle faced woman went to her knees and begged Pitt Mackeson not to kill her husband. I stared right into her face and she looked like every woman you'd ever known.

" 'I'll show him the same mercy they showed us,' Mackeson said."

Woodrell keeps a very tight focus. There's not much backstory. We aren't told much about Jake Roedel's past or that of his companions. Outside Kansas and Missouri, the Civil War rages, but we don't hear about it. Actions fought by regular Confederate forces in the area are barely alluded to. Woe to Live On may be the first Civil War novel that never mentions Grant or Jeff Davis, Lincoln or Lee.

We learn little about the Kansas Irregulars' beliefs. They like discipline about as much as they like blacks. They're sworn to leave their "rebel locks" uncut. They enjoy bloody revenge. "The rebel," Jake says in a rare thoughtful moment, "is a blight on the yankee man's will."

Tight focus gives Woe to Live On considerable power and some of the authority a parable has. This focus also makes for difficulties right at the core. Without our knowing him better (his past, his beliefs), Jake Roedel isn't very appealing. His character change, brought on by an overload of grimness, isn't convincing. Jake Roedel is only the most sensitive brute among brutes.

Those few Irregulars who survived the Civil War and published memoirs presented numerous justifications. Justice was a favorite. Self-determination was a popular theme, and everybody wrote about Honor. Some prated about "chivalric deeds" and "defense of Southern Womanhood." Their views may seem odd and a bit unattractive today, but these men held them -- usually to the death.

Some of the Irregulars thought of themselves as modern-day knights. Woe to Live On suggests they were murderers. :: Donald McCaig is the author of the novels "Nop's Trials" and "The Man Who Made the Devil Glad."